Modern CRPGs: Compelling or Complacent?

Over the past decade, computer roleplaying games – both single-player and massively-multiplayer iterations – have been enjoying a period of ascendancy to the point of becoming mainstream. At its peak in October 2010, Blizzard Entertainment’s World of Warcraft boasted 12 million subscribers in October 2010. Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls: Skyrim and Fallout 4, BioWare’s Dragon Age series, and CD Projekt RED’s Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, to name a few, have all enjoyed monumental success critically and financially. These games have sold millions of copies, showcased expansive and immersive worlds, and pitted players in compelling storylines with memorable characters.

But for all the innovation and production value these titles have displayed, is the computer roleplaying game genre becoming stale?

In a blog post at Gamasutra, Guido Henkel – professional game designer and a developer who worked on the classic Planescape: Torment – posits that in the 20 years since BioWare’s Baldur’s Gate “steered the RPG genre away from the abyss of oblivion and took it to a more mainstream audience” that roleplaying games – in terms of innovation, design, and remaining true to the spirit of roleplaying – have become stagnant:

In the long years since, the design of computer roleplaying games has evolved very little. The visuals may be more dazzling, the storylines ever more complex, and the worlds ever larger, waiting to be explored with their rich tapestry of flora, fauna, and denizenry, but at the core what they have always been truly missing is a beating heart.

Henkel’s commentary is an unquestionably a strong indictment of the contemporary roleplaying game genre. While he stresses that it would be a “manifest oversimplification” to simply state that contemporary CRPGs “lack feature-depth and are too shallow,” it is instead “the way they are presented and employ these features, that generates the impression of overly shallow gameplay.” Indeed, to as Henkel writes:

We have created games that no longer necessitate players to think for themselves. It requires no imagination and moreover, the game is robbing the player of many of the exciting details that made classic roleplaying games so memorable.

How did we arrive at such a state? Henkel believes some of the fault lies simply in advances in programming and design. For example, to remove “menial” tasks and create a more user-friendly interaction, the computer has assumed many tasks that, in a pencil-and-paper RPG would be the purview of a Dungeon Master, adding “auto-mapping features and journals to keep track of quest assignments.”

In a society that increasingly craves ease of access and displays shorter attention spans, it is perhaps unsurprising that roleplaying games – and the nuts and bolts behind them – have become more simplified and automated all in the name of accessibility and playability. But Henkel argues that RPGs have hit a tipping point and gone too far in the other direction:

Today, with the computer tracking and mapping very quest destination, every crafting resource, blacksmith, bandit camp, grindstone, and store, along with every important NPC, every dungeon entrance, and every campsite, some games will even conveniently plot a path to your next quest destination for you. Where is the play left in this sort of roleplaying? We have created games that no longer necessitate players to think for themselves. It requires no imagination and moreover, the game is robbing the player of many of the exciting details that made classic roleplaying games so memorable.

According to Henkel, while CRPGs have grown in accessibility – and seen a commensurate increase in players – such growth and development has meant that “today’s CRPGs are mainstream titles that have very little in common with their ancestors from the 80s and 90s. In fact, one could argue that they have very little in common with roleplaying games, period.”

And so while it would appear that game worlds are growing larger, combat flashier and more visceral, and stories more compelling, in reality we are only experiencing “an illusion of freedom,” with roleplaying games becoming more formulaic:

Virtually all triple-A computer roleplaying games have been reduced to a very simple formula. You run around, you fight opponents, you talk to friendly NPCs and you follow fairly static quest lines. In most cases, the player will feel fairly detached from the actual experience because the in-game auto pilot makes sure you never have to invest any of your own thinking prowess or imagination, or read a single line of dialogue for that matter—though you will have to click mindlessly through them. You’ll never get lost either because the mapping features will always let you find your way from quest point A to point B without deviation, and if you are lucky, once in a blue moon, you may actually be allowed to make a decision that has some sort of consequence. Puzzles are exceedingly rare and when you stumble across them, typically at the end of a dungeon, they have the solution already built-in or are of a rather mundane arranging or do-something-in-the-correct-order kind of sort. Anything, really, to make sure the player never gets stuck or even held up for more than a few seconds.

But while it may sound like a grim prognosis, Henkel is far from pessimistic about the genre, offering key suggestions for courses developers could take to reinvigorate CRPGs and bring some fresh air to what he sees as its current bout of staleness. Namely, he urges developers to be bold and take a chance on players by encouraging them to use their imagination, to abolish the tired cliché of skill trees and cookie cutter builds and allow unique character progression, and to have believable worlds that truly tracks and responds to the impact a player can have:

I strongly feel that it is time for the next step in the evolution of the genre. Let us make use of the technologies and incredible processing power at our disposal for more than stunning visuals. Let us turn the computer into a real Dungeon Master, a storyteller who weaves a narrative fabric as we play along, who is sensitive to the way individual players behave and tackle the game, who challenges the player in accordance with his unique strengths, weaknesses, achievements and playing style. Someone who knows how to force the player to make decisions of consequence.

It is, to be sure, a tall order – a moonshot, if you will. But Henkel shows no signs of backing away from such a challenge:

Even these glimmers should give you an inkling of the kind of brand new experience one could create if applying them to a new roleplaying game. Are you up to the challenge? I'd love to help.

Henkel’s article is particularly in-depth and insightful, and I encourage readers, after reading through the whole blog post at Gamasutra, to post their thoughts and opinions on Henkel’s argument here in the comments.